Letting your songs out into the world is a bit like sending kids off to their first day of school. Will they be bullied? Will they daydream and wish they were somewhere else? Will they fit in and thrive? Will they learn?
This past weekend I listened to a radio show from WBRS at Brandeis University called, “Off the Beaten Path.” Michael Kane, the producer, included a song off my new album, “Riding Through the Burn.” This was the song’s first day of school. I sat expectantly to sense how the song, my child, would do in the mix. After listening to a very enjoyable, diverse and finely curated show I concluded that the song held its own and made a contribution to the whole. What more could I ask?
Of course, I love the song like we love our children. But in the case of this song, the lyrics were written by someone other than me. Paul Zarzyski is one of my all-time favorite poets and lyricists. He is beloved in the world of cowboy poetry, though he’s an anomaly there. His poems are free verse and uncontained, opinionated in ways that often fly in contrast to the cowboy tribe and yet utterly a part of the tribe’s ethos. Within cowboy poetry he’s often categorized as a rodeo poet but he’s so much more. In his younger days he competed in rodeo, riding roughstock. Perhaps that’s where he learned to write such bucking words. All I know is his words are rarely thrown to the ground but soar to the sky with passion and life.
I recently went back through our correspondence as we worked on this song to get a sense of how words, melody and performance came together. Paul and I are long-time friends but this is not so much our story as the story of a torid affair between words and music. To reread these letters, the delicate tango of music and words, is to watch a song progress from flirtation to conception and onward to birth.
In 2016 our group 3hattrio was selected to perform at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. For the first time since the event began in 1985, I wore an artist’s nametag rather than the badge that identified me as they guy who could point to where the bathrooms were.
One of the highlights of that event was when 3hattrio accompanied Paul Zarzyski, impromptu, as he performed his poetry. I was startled when he casually mentioned he’d like to write a song with me—excited but also scared. I wanted my music to live up to his words.
As the voice of music, I entered the relationship with trepidation. In an email on September 3, 2016, I wrote: “Simple and spare? Let’s write a song.”
Paul, representing words, answered September 14, “Is it now time to take a run at it?” He gave me a choice of looking at lyrics already written, waiting for music, or “starting from scratch.” Then he laid out some terms. “I’m a good collaborator until faced with poor or dishonest communication, at which point I’ll respectfully suggest that the friendship is far more critical than the art.”
I wrote back disclosing that even if we wrote songs together there would be no assurances that 3hattrio would record them. My bandmate Greg Istock and I have always written our own songs and I needed to be honest about the group dynamic. Greg is a musical genius and a close friend, but that does not mean that two strong- willed creatives don’t struggle at times.
Paul understood my trepidation. “3hat is creating, both musically and visually, the otherworldly. But the work is so, SOOOOO spare in lyric, and, well, I’m having second thoughts about fucking with it. Maybe we should have a conversation before I intrude?”
But then he sent some lyrics on September 20th, describing the first three (which included “Riding through the Burn”) with, “They ain’t ‘cowboy.’” I fell in love with them immediately and wrote back, “I can’t guarantee what the others will think but I’m itching to bring your words into music.”
The deal was made—words and music were officially going steady. But as with many relationships, Paul cautioned me that our musical dating must stay secret: “I've finally found that magical space where I can work under the radar, in solitude, while embracing my mantra, ‘Create Without Destination.’ I prefer not to play a role in the bizz’s rumor mill.”
Paul went on to lay out more ground rules. “I am not willing to tear these lyrics down to bare bones and sinew and to start from scratch. But,” he continued, “I’m open to revisions galore, so let whatever annoys you rip.”
I was still nervous about these songs fitting the 3hattrio style, “I am concerned about one thing so perhaps you should give me ground rules. In 3hattrio nothing is sacred. We keep changing the arrangements, changing the words. It is always a moving target to keep it alive and of the moment.”
He replied, “Embedded into those lyrics are ‘matrices’ of poetic sensibilities that have evolved over years of revisions. I’ve been asked by other songwriters to change lines both for meaning and phrasing and have been open and successful with the requests/challenges; however, the chances of you and Greg changing too much of what’s there without altering the song’s ‘storyline,’ as I have come to know and/or love living with it, are slight at best.”
He cautioned me further, “You’ve referred twice now to the works I sent as ‘poetry.’ Thanks for the compliment! But they ain’t poems, my friend, they're lyrics—written to be sung. I seldom write poetry in rhyme and meter, as I do the lyrics. Generally speaking, if’n it rhymes, it’s a song, and if’n it don’t, it’s a poem?” Sensing my hesitance, he continued, “Am I’m feeling a skosh of aversion from you? No problem. We can call it off right now and both walk away unscathed.” I wrote back immediately, “Skosh of aversion, shit no. Just challenged.”
I was committed. I’d already started trying to make music to match the lyrics, first speaking the lines behind a simple improvisational guitar and then, as I wrote back, “I’m at about the ‘talking blues’ level so far with your words. Give me time. I should just shut up and keep the whimpering to myself.” He also had asked my opinion of a new Colter Wall song and I replied, “I’m sort of obsessed with your lyrics right now so anything else is like taking a bite of pickle in the midst of a bowl of ice cream.”
I know nothing of the geometry of music. Music has always simply resided inside me. It’s holy and like with all things holy, I don’t dissect it. Most of the time when I write music it takes some kind of physical act to shake it out. It can be wailing on a guitar or banjo. It can be shouting or moaning the words like an incantation. I often weep uncontrollably. I call for the music and if I’m lucky it will peek out and do the right thing.
After a few back-and-forths about specific words, I wrote him on September 27th. “I’d like to send you a rough recording of the song just to see if we are on the right track.” That moment was scary as hell.
The next day Paul got back to me, “I love where you’re going with this melody, this groove, Hal! There’s tension, a mysteriousness, and, at moments, even an eeriness? HOLY SHITE, man—you’re inside this wall-less, ceiling-less storyline and dancing with the music without having to fret about bumping into anything but the beautiful Muses.”
Just reading this, years later, I get goosebumps. I wrote back the same day, “Damn, I am so relieved. You have no idea. I’m absolutely loving this song. I’m not used to putting over this complex a song. So much of it is me getting used to the words.”
On the first of October I wrote Paul, “Yesterday I rehearsed with the Hats and played them the song. Greg’s observation was that he was disappointed it got positive in the last verse. Eli told me I’d have to work very hard to put it over.”
In the end, one of the other songs from our collaboration, "Wastelands of Yesterday,” was embraced by the 3hattrio while “Riding Through the Burn” was nixed. That’s when I vowed to record the song on a solo album and began assembling the songs I’ve gathered together for Nothin’ Lastin’.
Riding Through the Burn
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Riding through the burn right after the fire Not one blade of desire alive In a wasteland of gray and black lances— Does the seedbed of Eden survive? ... survive Riding through the burn of what’s left after love Out of nowhere, a biblical wind Runaway horses and snags crashing down— Does Satan give thanks for our sins?
Blow down, hail down, like spitfire bullets Down, pound down, like towers of bones Down, strike down. like javelin lightning— We rode hard for cover, but froze Caught out in the open, we’re frozen
Riding through the burn of the wild unholy Blinded still by sensual smoke Runaway horses like runaway hearts— Are there ways to un-tame what’s been broke?
Blow down, hail down, like spitfire bullets Down, pound down, like towers of bones Down, strike down, like javelin lightning— We rode hard for cover, but froze Caught out in the open, we’re froze
Riding through the burn buzzing with lupine Honeybee nectar alive in the breeze Nicker and bugle and chirping and caw– Does their song bring the dark to its knees?
Rise up, rise up, dear seedlings in Eden Up, reach up, through the clouds’ wilderness Up, shine up, like earth into heaven— We found love in the wilds and lived We learned what is sacred and lived We made peace with the earth and we lived
Poignant...as usual..and nice to know what goes into the sausage..
Thanks for sharing the mysterious intrigue of the creative process and its unique rewards. Congrats!